US real estate agents are taking to the skies to show off luxury listings
Airsickness bags, aviation headsets and motion sickness cures are the new essentials for a select group of US real estate agents who take top clients up in helicopters to show multi-million-dollar listings. “We don’t do it for just anyone — they have to be very well-qualified,” says Gwen Banta, a Los Angelesbased luxury broker who has flown her clients over $US11 million ($14m) and $US16m homes in Lake Arrowhead and Mammoth Lakes, California. “You come in over the lake and get that view, and they’re sold on the area before they ever touch ground.”
In cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, flying real estate agents score points with high-value clients by gliding over snarled traffic, swooping low over gated manses, and scoping out neighbourhoods in a matter of minutes. Ranch brokers in the Rocky Mountains and Texas can cover thousands of hectares in an afternoon while delivering views of rivers, canyons and the occasional grizzly bear.
“When we look at property anywhere, in central Florida or Idaho or Wyoming, we always use the helicopter because it gives you such a bird’s-eye view,” says Bernie Little, a commercial cattle owner who has a home in Florida and a ranch in Jackson, Wyoming.
That view comes at a cost: his prices start at $US650 an hour for a three-passenger Robinson R44 helicopter and pilot. Sightseeing and catered lunches are often included. The broker usually foots the bill.
“To provide something that a really wealthy person would appreciate is not an easy thing to do,” says Chris Feurer, chief executive of Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, which began offering helicopter viewings of properties with a minimum $1.5m purchase price last year.
Feurer has budgeted $US100,000 for helicopters this year. Jameson brokers has used them to show luxury condominiums and equestrian estates — and as a perk for top clients.
Attorney Janice Anderson sold her $US1.6m condo in the city’s South Loop and bought a new one on Lake Michigan for just under $US900,000 with broker Lau- ren Schuh. As a thank you, Schuh took Anderson and her daughter for a victory lap over the city.
Pilots and estate agents strategise in advance to plan aerial house tours. The pilot collects the co-ordinates of the homes and neighbourhoods the agent wants to show and uses them to plan the flight. The agent uses Google mapping software on an iPad to identify what properties will look like from 150m up. If a home that isn’t listed catches the client’s eye, the agent can pinpoint the location for future reference, while the pilot zooms in for a close-up.
“We can go really, really close — you can literally see people lying out on their decks,” says Lindsay Galbraith, a Sotheby’s International Realty agent based in
West Hollywood. Not all owners, or their neighbours, are ready for their close-up. “The sellers do not enjoy it when they’re home and there’s a helicopter flying low at close range,” says Galbraith.
Los Angeles’s luxury market is particularly suited for airborne house hunting, with its jammed freeways, and kilometres of hedgerows and high gates that shield high-end properties from view.
From the sky, it’s easy to see which Malibu listings have a coveted dry beach or one that disappears at high tide. A-list clients can check whether a gated estate is truly paparazzi-proof.
“No 1 rule: What a helicopter can see from up here is what someone can see from a house on the hilltop with a big-angle lens,” says Ben Salem, an LA broker.
Eager to snag lucrative commissions instead of hourly fees, some commercial pilots have their own real estate licences. Marc Hennes, a pilot and estate agent based in Fort Lauderdale, begins by asking clients if they’d like to view luxury properties with the chopper doors on or off.
“We would come to almost a complete stop in midair — say you’re on the edge of a cliff, looking down,” says Phil Appleton, a consultant in the offshore oil and gas industry, who bought a $US1.1m beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale after hovering in front of it — doors off — with Hennes.
Hennes, who sometimes brings a second pilot along, “because I can’t talk and point out properties while driving”, recently toured the site of a new luxury condominium with clients. “They couldn’t imagine what the views were like, so we flew right around the 12th storey,” he says.
Elena Berman, an artist, listed her $US3.2m lakeside home in California’s San Fernando Valley with John Mowatt, a pilot, flight instructor and real estate agent, after he took her for a demo viewing in a Sikorsky S-76.
She enjoyed the flight but not the descent: “I had five minutes of nauseous time — you cannot look down so much.”
Mowatt, who co-founded Heli-Realtors in LA, stocks the five helicopters he uses with airsickness wristbands and barf bags. Savvy brokers suggest travel sickness pills before boarding.
Viewings are occasionally delayed by bad weather or mechanical problems. One pilot had to make an emergency landing, turning a 45-minute viewing into a four-hour pit stop. “The clients were a little frustrated,” Heli-Realtors co-founder and broker Brett Lieberman says. But more often, agents and pilots say, the helicopter is a great bonding tool.
“A lot of these folks are pretty stand-offish when they first meet us. As soon as you get them in the air and they see the beauty … they really lighten up,” says Mark Taylor, chief pilot and owner of Montana-based Rocky Mountain Rotors, who tours $US40m ranches with brokers such as Tim Murphy of Hall and Hall.
Murphy’s prospective buyers pay the aircraft fees, which start at $US1400 an hour for a turbine helicopter. A client with an entourage — or a life insurance policy that prohibits single-engine helicopter flights — may require the twin-engine Bell 429 with seven passenger seats, for $4650 an hour.
An average tour can last five hours; two-day trips to view multiple ranches, with an overnight stay at a picturesque cabin, are not uncommon.
Taylor, who relies on remote webcams throughout Yellowstone National Park to monitor flight conditions for his high-altitude tours, ups the wow factor by seeking out alpine waterfalls, lofty peaks and photogenic wildlife. While flying with Murphy and clients from London, Taylor spotted a grizzly bear and her cubs in a distant meadow. He flew over and did a low figureeight around the bears, who rose up on cue.
“We always find cool stuff that just blows the mind of these people who come from the city,” Murphy says.
Kevin Meier, an agent with duPerier Land Man, flies his clients over hunting and fishing ranches across Texas, sometimes covering 800km in one day. A former wildlife biologist, Meier uses his helicopter tours to spotlight a recreational ranch’s key selling points: rivers and creeks — essential for fly-fishing — or a well-antlered deer herd. Lunch is provided, on the fly.
“The client said, ‘Hey, let’s go and grab some lunch — I see some Dairy Queen’,” Meier recalls.
The pilot landed in the parking lot.
Heli-Realtors’ John Mowatt and client Elena Berman, above; a view of Malibu from a real estate agent’s chopper, right
Montana pilot Mark Taylor, left, with local real estate agent Tim Murphy